Seeing Through Race: Towards Diaphanous Anti-racism

Posted with permission by Ryan Nakade from: https://greenteaji108.medium.com/seeing-through-race-towards-diaphanous-anti-racism-4842b3d2a662

Racial advocacy movements are gripped by a polarizing dichotomy: What is the end goal of racial justice? On one hand, there’s the camp of “color-blindness” that seeks to move beyond racial categories towards a universal humanity, where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by other factors, such as the content of their character (the “color-blind” camp often invokes MLK as its main proponent). On the other hand lies the “woke” or “race conscious” school that explicitly highlights race, grounded in societal impacts that unevenly influence the lived realities of different groups, leading to various forms of identity politics. Popular advocates of this approach include Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist. Both camps are ultimately limited and present drawbacks.

The criticism of the “color-blind” camp is not its blindness towards physical markers or outward characteristics of race, as that would be straight up racism, but rather its underemphasis on the larger systemic and structural factors that produce inequities, injustices, and key differences between racial groups that should be acknowledged and addressed. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and having awareness of larger structural and historical forces and how they impact one’s psychological and material reality can engender deeper understanding, empathy, and skillful means when working with individuals of different backgrounds. And often times, larger societal factors become entangled with and inform one’s personal identity, thus blurring the sharp distinction between individual and collective realities (more on this later).

The problem with the “race conscious” school is its hyper fixation on racial differences, leading to the (often inadvertent) reification of race, or essentializing constructs that are in reality quite fluid, subjective, and amorphous (committing philosopher Alfred North Whiteheads “fallacy of misplaced concretness”). Reifying differences also stokes the fires of racial conflict and division, and can be counter productive to the ends of racial justice by further incarcerating us into the harmful racial categories we are ultimately trying to transcend. Reification also has a dehumanizing influence; stuffing people into abstract labels that occlude one’s unique individuality, while also damaging larger forms of social cohesion and solidarity. Thus, we have a paradox: How do we capture the key differences in lived experiences, perspectives, and realities that are born from genuine systemic injustices, while not re-essentializing those categories into pernicious forms of identitarian tribalism?

What I propose is a transcendent middle way between the two camps: Race transparency. Race transparency seeks to see through the construct of race, thus not essentializing racial differences, while still acknowledging the unique systemic impacts on various racial groups and the lived experiences of individuals in those groups. Its like seeing through a window: We can see the pane of glass, but also see through it — seeing through the outer markers of race into one’s individual uniqueness, while also having a meta-perspective of the larger (often invisible) structural forces that influence all of us in myriad ways. Thus, race transparency integrates the best of both camps; harmonizing universality and particularity, the personal and the collective, the micro and the macro, without ossifying racial differences into polarizing divisions.

Race transparency offers a wise way of addressing racial conflicts by understanding the paradoxical nature of race and racial advocacy: race is simultaneously real and not real, an illusion with real world impacts and consequences, insubstantial in nature yet also containing its own (very dense) gravity. Having a deep, complex, multi-layered, paradoxical understanding of race allows us to take action towards racial justice in such a way that doesn’t inadvertently reify race in the process; we don’t become lost in the illusion we are trying to break free from, or get seduced by its illusory opacity.

The tenets of diaphanous anti-racism (DAR)

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The vision of race transparency is made possible by a new form of anti-racism, which I am dubbing “Diaphanous anti-racism” (DAR). Diaphanous means “light, delicate, translucent.” This is how DAR encourages us to think about race — lightly, delicately, and translucently, expanding our insight and wisdom into wicked problems such as racial injustice and addressing them in such a way that causes positive ripples throughout society instead of unintentionally perpetuating racial conflict or provoking vicious blowbacks. Below are five tenets of DAR in practice.

  1. DAR eschews thinking in black and white binaries and oversimplified generalizations in favor of a nuanced, holistic, “complexity” approach. Procrustean categories are supplanted by a fluid, dynamic, and processual view of race and identity; a self constantly coming into being as a result of the intricate interplay of personal, contextual and environmental forces (also known as the “simultaneity model”). Chole Valdary, founder of the “Theory of Enchantment” has three rules, the first being “treat people like human beings, not political abstractions.” DAR says “treat people like human beings, AND understand the structural implications of race and identity.” DAR seeks to explore the human being in all of its dazzling complexity — an intersectional fractal of part and whole.
  2. DAR replaces the dated binary between the “individual” and the “collective” in favor of what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls the “dividual” — an infinitely divisible human being, inextricably entangled with society, which leads to an expanded definition of self-awareness or “dividual awareness.” Philosopher Hanzi Freinacht describes it best: “To really see the singular human being, to really respect her rights and uniqueness, we must go beyond the idea of the individual; we must see through it and strive to see how society is present within each single person as well as in the relationships through which she is born as a “self”. We go from the idea of the individual (vs. “the collective”), to simply seeing society as an evolving, interlinked set of transindividuals.”
  3. DAR seeks to be psychoactive, catalyzing human growth and development by expanding our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. This includes both personal and societal “shadow work,” healing of personal and collective traumas, taking multiple perspectives on various issues, stretching our cognitive capacities, holding nuances, paradoxes, and ambiguities, adopting both personal and collective responsibility, awakening our sociological imaginations, and cultivating virtues that strengthen our character.
  4. DAR promotes “systemic self-empowerment,” which integrates the best of self-empowerment with systemic critique. Traditional notions of self-empowerment have been criticized for being blind to the systemic barriers that certain groups face, while critical social theories have been criticized for promoting a “victim mentality,” or an offloading of personal responsibility in favor of blaming the system. Systemic self-empowerment understands that systemic insights enhance self-empowerment, by making us more vigilant of background structural factors and our entanglement with them. Taking a lesson from Pinocchio, we emancipate ourselves by cutting the strings, but we must first see the strings. Paulo Freire calls this “critical consciousness,” or the self-liberating power of socio-historical contextualization.
  5. DAR focuses on affirmative values and virtues, not just on avoiding social land mines. Woke sub-cultures have a tendency to hyper fixate on what we should NOT do — i.e all the ways one could accidentally harm others. White fragility, white silence, white superiority, etc. act as explosive tripwires to be avoided at all costs. While we should be mindful of the impacts of our actions, we should also promote positive, aspirational and even inspirational virtues to live up to: White fragility is transformed into racial anti-fragility or deep resiliency, silence replaced by courageous and wise action, superiority usurped by humility, ignorance to illumination. DAR seeks to strike a balance between focusing on the past, bringing healing and reconciliation to collective shadows and traumas, while also looking forward, or “leading from the emerging future” as Otto Scharmer calls it.
  6. DAR seeks to go beyond justice, to a world that actively embodies the good, true, and beautiful. Justice serves as a baseline for society, an ethical “ground zero” for us to catch up to. But this means justice tends to be negatively oriented, like someone who strives his whole life to get out of debt and break even instead of building net worth above the baseline. Therefore, I propose we should strive for all of the above — towards a baseline of justice and fairness for all, while also cultivating ever more goodness, truth, and beauty in the world, as they are ultimately intertwined and mutually enhancing. The quest for racial justice need not only be pain, hardship, and struggle, but also an opportunity for inspiration, growth, and healing, where our visions of a world “more beautiful than our hearts know is possible” are ignited.

Conclusion

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Ultimately, my hope with DAR is to not only build vibrant communities and subcultures dedicated to ending racial injustice, but also to use the deep wound and inflammatory subject of race as the ultimate social acupressure point to promote healing, integration, and transformation at all levels of society. It goes without saying that race is a huge contributor to our current state of social division — gasoline poured on the fires of the culture wars — but I see this crisis as a golden opportunity. I believe that methods like DAR can have a positive ripple effect throughout all of society, for the old saying goes “how you do one thing is how you do everything.” If the issue of race is addressed through the methods outlined above, I believe nothing will stop us from moving towards a world of beauty, truth, goodness and justice for all. So let’s get to work.

Recommended Readings:

Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe, Bailey W. Jackson, New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: Integrating Emerging Frameworks

PauloFreire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmothers Hands

Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges

Jean Gebser, The Ever Present Origin



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